Houston County History

Houston County was first settled in the 1780’s when early pioneers traveling the Cumberland River ventured up Wells Creek and settled in the area where navigable waters ceased. In 1871, Houston County was established and named in honor of former Governor and hero, Sam Houston.

A superior grade of limestone was discovered in the rugged hills. During Reconstruction flourishing communities Arlington & Stewart developed where the lime kilns were built. Five of these lime kilns remain and two are currently listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

A railroad connecting Louisville, Kentucky and Memphis, Tennessee was built through what is now Houston County and was completed two days before the Civil War began. This railroad was built by Irish contractors with Irish laborers. The Irish named one of their work camps Erin because the clear creek, wooded hills and fog hovering over the West Fork of Wells Creek reminded them of the “Auld Sod” of Ireland. Erin is listed on a Federal Forces map in 1863 and during Reconstruction the railroad built a depot, hotel and round house in Erin.

When the railroad was abandoned, Erin established the Betsy Ligon Park and Walking Trail on the abandoned railroad tracks and built the Railroad Memorial Pavilion. A four-panel tribute to the railroad workers is hung on the pavilion wall. A Box Car and Caboose is located in the park for display. The city of Erin has also added restroom facilities in the park.

Other towns that grew along the railroad were Tennessee Ridge, Stewart, Mckinnon and Danville. Danville was flooded when the Gilbertsville Dam was built on the Tennessee River. A portion of one structure remains; the top story of the grain elevator built in 1870, stands above the Kentucky Lake Waters. Anglers still use the old structure for Catfishing.

While blasting for the railroad a geological phenomenon was rediscovered by the Tennessee state geologist. He found the rock strata to be uneven and many places shows signs of a complete upheaval. In the 1860,’s a geologist named Stafford reported this finding and one hundred years later, Vanderbilt University and NASA researched this strata phenomenon and identified the largest impact crater in Tennessee and one of the largest in North America. This seven-mile crater is called the Wells Creek Basin and is thought to have been formed by a meteor impact.

The Irish railroad workers named the town Erin as it reminded them of their homeland hence the third Saturday in March has been designated for the Annual Irish Celebration. Green is the color with many hints of something Irish going on throughout the county. Events include Leprechaun Parade, Grand Parade, Art in the Park, Street Entertainment, Food and Craft Booths, the Tennessee 50th Regiment Civil War Reenactment Unit camps at the lime kilns. Talent and Musical Shows, Golf and Bass Fishing Tournaments, a week long Carnival, Irish Market and Luncheon, Irish Banquet, many Pageants naming Irish Royalty and the most esteemed honor naming the Lord High Mayor to reign over the Celebration and throughout the year all occur leading up the Saturday Celebration.

The Houston County Library and the Houston County Historical Society collect history and genealogy of the area. This material is available for public use at the Houston County Library on Spring Street along with publications of Houston County History for sale.
Adapted from the Civil War site map The Tennessee River Runs Through It.

The Tennessee General Assembly established Houston County on January 21, 1871, and named it in honor of Sam Houston, governor of Tennessee and hero of Texas. The people voted to establish the new county in 1871 because they were too far from their respective courthouses in Dickson, Humphreys, and Stewart Counties to properly conduct business. Even after Houston County formed, however, a kindred social, historical, and economic relationship remained between Houston and these parent counties.

Well’s, Guice’s, and Yellow Creeks of present Houston County attracted many settlers in the late eighteenth century. After Chickasaw land cessions, many residents were ready to cross the Tennessee ridge to divide and claim lands on White Oak, Cane, and Hurricane Creeks. There they had downhill access to both the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers for shipment of natural and manufactured products such as whiskey, tobacco, cotton, Indian hemp, and timber. Settlers also shipped iron products made at local forges on Well’s Creek, Yellow Creek, and Hurricane Creek; an 1806 iron furnace on Well’s Creek is the first mentioned in the area. A type of clay suitable for fire brick for furnaces was found on what is now Booster branch of Well’s Creek (Byron Forge Creek), and the fire brick no longer had to be imported.

In the 1850s the railroad came to Houston County. The Clarksville and Louisville Railroad Company, chartered in 1852, began the section from Guthrie to Paris, and the Memphis and Ohio Railroad Company, chartered 1852, began the section from Memphis to Paris. While crews were blasting the railroad bed in the 1850s, a rock strata was found at an angle rather than the typical flat formation. State Geologist James Safford studied and reported the find, which has received extensive analysis since. Safford named the site Well’s Creek Basin. This place is circular and about two miles in diameter; it was core-drilled several miles deep to determine if its origin was volcanic or meteoric. The latest geological opinion defines it as meteoric.

By 1857 the Memphis, Clarksville and Louisville Railroad had been built from Guthrie to near the Tennessee ridge, where a depot was built at a village later known as Erin Station, located about one-half mile east of the present town of Erin. Further construction stalled because of slides in the cuts of the trestle west of Tennessee Ridge, and the railroad to Paris was not completed until April 1861. Initially a ferry crossed the Tennessee River, until the bridge was completed in November 1861.

The Civil War began just as the bridge was completed. Confederate General Simon Buckner took charge of the bridge and railroad to move Southern troops and supplies. When the Union army captured the area, Federal soldiers and supplies traveled in the opposite direction. In the course of the war, the bridge was damaged and rebuilt several times.

After the war, repairs to the railroad system helped launch an industrial boom. Danville became a rail and river port, moving farm products from the surrounding area and northern Alabama. Marketable products from Alabama arrived by steamboat and were reloaded at Danville. A spur line extended from Danville to Stribling and the LaGrange iron furnace. McKinnon built coke ovens to fuel the iron furnaces, and Stewart launched its lime industry, which spawned stave mills for making barrels to hold the lime. Tennessee Ridge acquired a railroad depot and a spur line to Carlisle and Bear Springs furnaces. Erin became a lime and timber manufacturing center, and Cumberland City (originally in Houston County) was a rail and river port for shipping farm products from the areas of Well’s, Guise’s, and Yellow Creeks.

Arlington was the first seat of government in Houston County. Its location on the grade of the Tennessee Ridge prevented trains from stopping there. Instead, they halted at the nearby village of Erin, near the spot where later the county seat was relocated. A favored legend has it that the Irish living there had a “wee too much to drink” and decided the area resembled their beloved Ireland, thus naming it Erin. Today, Erin celebrates its ethnic heritage with an annual Irish festival. A week of activities concludes with a parade on the third Saturday in March.

Recreation is a growth industry in Houston County. Erin features a two-mile greenbelt walking trail, a park, and the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad Memorial Pavilion along an abandoned stretch of the former L&N Railroad. The National Guard Armory at Tennessee Ridge offers ball fields, tennis courts, and a walking trail. There are three boat launches on the Tennessee River with nearby motels.

The timber industry remains a vibrant part of the county economy with five large mills and processing plants. Trinity Hospital was the first hospital built from the ground up by Hospital Corporation of America (HCA). The county has a state-of-the-art nursing home with adjoining assisted-living apartments. Southern Gage found Houston County in the 1950s, and now many manufacturing companies call the county home. Stewart-Houston Industrial Park contains three manufacturing facilities, with four additional facilities in the planning stages. Erin’s water plant, which supplies the county, was named the number-one water plant in Tennessee in 1996. Violent crime is a rarity, and churches of most faiths are spread throughout the county. Born into a history of industrial success, the progress of Houston County is as rich as the surrounding hills. Its 2000 population was 8,088.
by Charles Lovelady and Nina Finley, 2000.  Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture